Prominent priest’s ‘proclamation’ over the rising domestic violence might’ve found resonance in the recent emergence of a help desk in Kashmir’s only women police station, but the distressed region continues to await its women’s commission gone with the 2019 landscape alteration.
Snowfall was about to carpet Kashmir when Fozia arrived at the bunkered gates of the erstwhile castle on the banks of river Jhelum. Unlike the bygone fairer troupe from nearby Maisuma—who would drum out a monarch from his mainstay and shift him to the Solomon Hill stronghold—the disarmed woman had come to seek support from the body which had given succor to her distressed gender in Kashmir.
As Fozia entered, she witnessed the cold wind whipping through the wailing willows and naked Chinars — making creaking and groaning sound akin to an old rocking chair. In that overcast and misty day, nothing was visible.
Wearing a black pattu pheran, dog-tired Fozia stood paralysed at the gates. She wept at once with a sudden wild abandonment in her brother’s arms. Into a chair placed near the gate she sank pressed down by a physical exhaustion that possessed her body and seemed to reach into her soul.
The commission that once used to be hustling and bustling with women, some crying with anguish and some satisfied with justice, now remains untouched by their presence.
But just when she was within the ace of getting justice, the legal change smashed all her hopes leaving her life stuck in a freeze frame.
“For the first few months after marriage things were fine,” revealed Fozia Hamid, 35, who now lives with her 7-year-old daughter in a small rented room by doing meagre jobs in the Hazratbal area of Srinagar.
Compelled by her in-laws to quit her 9-year-old job as a teacher in a private school, Fozia was subjected to constant taunts and threats right from the third month of her marriage. “I don’t understand what they had against me,” she confessed, swallowing a sob.
Her husband, who turned out to be a drug-addict left her with nothing after robbing off all her savings and ornaments. If she refused to give him money, he would hit her with an iron rod that he hid behind the old and mouldy door of his room, she recalled with a shudder.
Things became unbearable when he heard about her second pregnancy. Not being financially stable, he wanted her to abort the child. Having refused to do so, Fozia was locked up in a room for 3 days without any food supply. When she retaliated, he thrashed her down the stairs which lead to a miscarriage.
Badly mutilated, she landed at her parent’s place with several bruises and impairments.
After about two months, her husband apologised and after making hasty promises they reconciled and she returned to her matrimonial home.
Just a few days later, having overheard a phone conversation, she was convinced that her husband was having an extra-marital affair. Upon confrontation, they got caught up in a heated argument and in a fit of rage he beat her ruthlessly and set her petrified body on fire using kerosene.
“I spent two months crying inconsolably in the hospital with my brother and my in-laws remained unbothered by my terrible condition,” said Fozia in a pressing tone. She sat there quite motionless until a sob came up to her throat and shook her, like a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.
Left alone and anguished, she started to approach local NGOs for help. This is when she heard about the state women’s commission and decided to file a case.
“It tore me apart to speak up for my rights because I always wanted to save my marriage so that my daughter wouldn’t have to live without her parents,” Fozia regretted.
To address such cases, the State Commission for Women came into being in April 1999. Under the aegis of the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights Act of 2018, it was later converted into the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights.
The statutory body of the state (now union territory) dealt with multifarious issues concerning violations of constitutional rights of women and children and provided for a speedy trial for such cases.
Various activists and NGOs working in Kashmir on gender issues considered the Commission to be a meaningful and safer alternative platform for women to come forth and report cases given the shortage of police station in the erstwhile state. Besides, for many women, filing a complaint at the police station is an unnerving quest.
However, to encourage women to come forward with their complaints, SSP Srinagar, Dr. M. Haseeb Mughal, recently inaugurated Women Help Desk and Counseling Hall at Women police station at Rambagh Srinagar. “… the growing incidents of domestic violence arising out of issues between the married couples in the valley especially in District Srinagar demand an immediate redressal mechanism,” the police said in a statement.
Notably, the woman desk was set up weeks after Kashmir’s grand Mufti rang alarm bells over the growing domestic violence in the valley.
Looking back, Fozia informed that for the first few months, the case didn’t progress well. “Finally my husband was summoned and asked to provide maintenance for me and my daughter,” she said.
About a month later, on 5th August 2019, the BJP Government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status under Article 370 of the constitution and bifurcated the strife-struck state into two union territories.
Fozia’s hardship heightened with the promulgation of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation order on the 23rd October, 2019 that scrapped about 160 special laws that applied to the former state of J&K and dissolved 7 important state commissions including the State Commission for Protection of Women & Child Rights (SCPWCR). This left Fozia running on fumes, bitterly disheartened.
Fozia was just one of the hundreds of women whose life depended on the existence of the commission.
“Having successfully resolved over 5,000 cases, the commission had around 300 odd cases still pending disposal at the time of its closure,” confirmed Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi, the last chairperson of the commission.
“The order of closure directed the commission to hand over all records to the National Commission for Women (NCW) headquartered in Delhi. This aggravated the sufferings of the women who were just on the verge of getting justice.”
The commission not only worked as a civil court but also as a watchdog. Its most important role was embedded in its power to take suo moto cognizance in case of violation of rights ensured to women and children and inspection of institutions, organizations/places where women and children were lodged, examining and reviewing safeguards of rights of women and children and making of reports /recommendations for improving the status of and ensuring restoration of rights of women and children.
In addition to this, since the proceedings in the commission were less time-consuming, women and children in distress would approach the commission for redressal of their grievance, protection against violation of their rights and to avail the constitutional safeguards and the aggrieved did not have to spend even the smallest amount of money at any stage be it from registration of their complaints till the finality of the dispute.
But 10 months after the NCW overtook the obliterated SCPWCR, the ‘shifted’ files seem to have been lost in transition.
“Just because we’ve a Supreme Court,” Masoodi said, “it doesn’t mean that all the state-level cases will directly come to it; for that, we’ve different high courts for different states and UTs. Similarly, we should have a body in every state and UTs including J&K.”
If a woman from Delhi wished to register a case at the NCW, the former chairperson explained, she would not be able to because there’s a separate commission in place there.
“NCW only takes up the cases of NRIs or people who’re settled in different states of India,” she added. “Besides, NCW monitors the functioning of the commissions of other states and UTs as well.”
But amid all this, women like Fozia are bewildered. In front of the shut office, she started looking for the address of the commission’s chairperson. Finally, at Masoodi’s residence, she found a dozen other desperate women who had travelled from far-flung areas and were seeking answers from the former chairperson, to which she hardly had any response.
After the women learned that the commission was no more, “I would console them saying that the commission will hopefully resume its work,” the ex-chairperson said. “They’ve nowhere to go and it really makes me sad to see them struggling for justice.”
Even several NGOs believe that the continuance of the commission would be ideal in Kashmir because of its broader jurisdiction. In fact, they argue, redressal for women who experience violence was hard even when J&K was a state, but the commission offered ‘at least some hope’.
With violence against women reportedly spiking across the valley after the Covid-19 lockdown, there are few places that can help.
“Even the mention of the commission would save a lot of marriages in Kashmir,” said Zahira Bano, a homemaker who lives with her parents.
“I remember how my husband and I would get into fights over petty issues. One day, after beating me mercilessly, he threatened to kill me and out of frustration I told him that I will approach the women’s commission and he stopped beating me at once.”
“Women who would have greatly benefitted from the existence of the commission have been badly impacted because reaching out to the faraway NWC is not as easy,” said Arshie Qureshi, one of the co-founders of the women’s cell – Mehram.
Lately, a women-welfare group based outside Kashmir that reinstated the commission in Telangana had also written to the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi demanding the restoration of the commission amid the rise in domestic violence cases across the erstwhile state.
“There is a need to restore the women’s commission in J&K,” said Danish Zahoor, who heads WomCom, a women-welfare body.
“A single women’s police station for 10 districts can’t handle all cases,” he added. “Even those women who had filed cases in the commission prior August 5th have been left vulnerable with nowhere to go. We’ve already written to the prime minister of India in this regard and are planning to file a petition as well.”
However, in absence of the commission, Fozia’s distressed tribe is only growing in Kashmir today. Many say the pandemic lockdown’s slogan—Stay Home, Stay Safe—has only tormented Kashmiri women.
Notably, in the two-month period of the ‘world’s strictest’ COVID-19 lockdown, announced by Narendra Modi on the eve of March 24, 2020, Jammu and Kashmir reported 16 cases of rape and 4 cases of molestation.
Of 4,05,861 crimes against women reported in India in 2019, J&K accounted for 3,069 cases, including rape, molestation and domestic violence, according to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB).
There were 223 rapes, 1,440 assaults ‘with intent to outrage their modesty’, 348 cases of cruelty by husbands, and eight dowry-related deaths recorded in the erstwhile state in 2019.
During previous lockdowns in 2016 and 2017, cases of general violence and domestic violence against women surged in Kashmir.
Between January 2016 and February 2017, the Women’s Commission received 220 cases, compared to just 142 during 2015, according to reports compiled by the Commission.
“I doubt that even 10 per cent of the victims have gone up to the NWC to report violence,” said a former employee of the commission, requesting anonymity. “It is very difficult in terms of the financial resources that it requires.”
Moreover, she added, most women have to send in their complaints by mail and due to the uncertainty of conditions in Kashmir even e-mailing becomes a difficult task. “Women aren’t aware of the legal procedures too.”
Hundreds of such cases will be brought to the forefront with the regeneration of the commission, said Nadiya Shafi, a social worker and activist working for gender rights in Kashmir.
“Since August 5, 2019, many women unfortunately remained trapped with their perpetrators with nowhere to go,” Nadiya said.
“The men, feeling increasingly anxious and out of control over their jobs and financial security, became more likely to increase control and abuse over their partners.”
Such brazen violation, activists say, warrants an immediate redressal in the form of commission.
“I strongly urge the government that in the interest of justice and for welfare of women and children in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Masoodi, the ex-chairperson, “nothing short of an exclusive commission ought to be re-notified on urgent basis to fill the gaps between the implementation of social welfare laws/policies and the beneficiaries.”